The Talking Skull – thinking about making claims

From Peter Worley’s new book due out in September 2015, given here as part of Keystone Workshop held on March 25th in St Albans.

Equipment needed and preparation:

  • (Optional) something to stand in for the skull and Enitan’s head, such as two balls (in addition to the talk-ball).
  • (Optional) have the Thoughting ‘Talking is like…’ ready to project or handout.

Starting age: 9 years

Key concepts / vocabulary: knowledge, belief, reasons, miracles, magic, talk, communication, communicate

Subject links: RE, Science, Literacy, PSHE

Key controversies: Should we believe people’s accounts of miraculous events? Is talking a good thing?

Quote: ‘There are only three possibilities. Either your sister [Lucy] is telling lies, or she is mad, or she telling the truth. You know she doesn’t tell lies and it is obvious that she is not mad… we must assume that she is telling the truth.’ – The Professor in C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe

No testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous than the fact which it endeavours to establish.’ – David Hume ‘Of Miracles’

Key facilitation tool: Quotes. Discuss. – In the extension activities section, this session suggests the use of a quote (from C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe) as a stimulus. Statements can be very effective catalysts to thought, sometimes more effective than a question, as they can provoke a visceral response. Compare these two ways of putting an issue to someone: a) ‘Are girls or boys better at writing?’ b) ‘Girls are better than boys at writing.’

Session Plan:

Do: read or tell the following story. It is only a little more than a synopsis, so feel free to embellish the story in your retelling, if you choose to tell it. (See Once Upon an If: ‘Sheherazad’s Handbook’ pp. 20-55.)

Say: A long time ago, somewhere in Africa, there was once an honest, sensible man, called Enitan. One day, while walking through the jungle by himself, he found a human skull lying on the ground. He wondered how the skull had come to be there so he said, out loud to the skull, ‘How did you get here?’ not expecting an answer.

         ‘Talking brought me here,’ said the skull. Amazed and terrified at what he had just witnessed, Enitan ran all the rest of the way home.

He went to see the village chief and told him about the talking skull he’d found in the jungle, thinking that this would make him famous in the village.

Start Question: Should the village chief believe Enitan?

Possible Further Questions (you do not need to go through all of these):

  • The man’s story is extraordinary, so should the chief believe him?
  • If the story is true, then should the chief believe him?
  • Should Enitan believe himself?
  • Is it a miracle?
  • What is a miracle?
  • Could there be any other explanations for the skull talking?
  • If someone tells you something unbelievable should you believe him or her?
  • If so, under what circumstances should you believe an unbelievable account?
  • Try using the Professor’s test from The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe with Enitan’s claim (see quote above). Is the Professor’s test a good way of testing people’s claims?

         The chief did not believe him. ‘But I DID see a talking skull! I did! I DID!’ Enitan protested.

         ‘Okay,’ said the chief, ‘I, and two of my guards, will go with you; if the skull speaks I will reward you with treasures and fame, but if it does not… then I shall reward you with death.’

The chief, his guards and Enitan returned to the place where he had found the skull. Enitan bent down and said to the skull, ‘How did you get here?’ The skull said… nothing.

         ‘HOW DID YOU GET HERE?’ said Enitan again, louder this time. Still the skull remained silent. The king turned to his guards and said, ‘This man has also wasted my time! Kill him!’ So they chopped off his head which fell to the ground next to the skull with a thud. The king and his guards returned to their village. Once they had departed, the skull opened it’s grinning mouth and said to Enitan’s head, ‘How did you get here?’ and Enitan’s head replied, ‘Talking brought me here.’

Comprehension Question: Why did Enitan’s head reply, ‘Talking brought me here,’?

Start Question: Is talking a good thing?

Possible Further Questions:

  • What is talking?
  • What does talking help us achieve?
  • What would we loose if we lost the ability to talk?
  • What would the world be like without talking?
  • When and how might talking be bad?

Say: No one noticed: not Enitan, the chief or his guards, but lying in or on the ground, littered all over the place, were many more human skulls!

Comprehension Question: Why are there lots of skulls?

Extension activities:

Task: Communicate something without talking

  • Have someone leave the room.
  • Identify an item in the room to another child.
  • Set the second child the task of communicating something – anything – about the item but without talking or using words in any way.

Questions:

  • Can they do it?
  • How easy is it?
  • What methods did they use?

‘Talking is like…’: a simile exercise

Do:

  • Go round the circle and say ‘Talking is like…’ to each child.
  • Give them 3 seconds to say a word without repeating another child’s suggestion (employing ‘the different answer rule’).
  • Gather the words on the board as you go around.
  • Once everyone has had a go, ask all the children to challenge the words: for example, ‘I don’t understand how talking can be like X…’
  • Ask the class, as a whole, to respond and attempt to explain why talking is like X.
  • Here is a Thoughting based on the exercise that could be used in a similar way: ask the children to challenge the words in the Thoughting and have the class respond in its defence. If the children struggle to grasp the simile/metaphor essence of the task you could read the Thoughting first, in order to give them a flavour of the task, and then run the activity, stipulating that they should not repeat anything from the poem.

Talking is like…

A tool,

An instrument,

A cloak,

A weapon,

A map,

A metal detector,

Medicine,

Poison.

A virus,

A wireless

Kind of

Connection.

A finger

That Points

To the farthest

Location.

With talk

I walk

But do not

Move.

With talk

My thought-

Hawk flies

To you.

Thoth and Thamus: for-and-against

In The Philosophy Shop (page 256) Claire Field retold an Egyptian myth told by Plato called ‘Thoth and Thamus’. In it, Thoth (the ancient Egyptian god of intelligence) is a god who invents new things and Thamus is a king who has to agree to Thoth’s new inventions before they will be given to the people. Thoth invents writing and the two argue about the merits and demerits of giving writing to the people. Claire has the class argue, with each other and on behalf of Thoth and Thamus, the ‘pros and cons’ of writing. When the myth is used in this way, its general application can easily be seen. A part from the ‘for-and-against’ dialogue opportunities Thoth and Thamus affords, it also has potential for the children’s written work. Have the children write their own dialogue with the two characters Thoth and Thamus arguing over the merits (Thoth) and demerits (Thamus) of X. ‘X’ could be ‘writing’ or ‘talking’, but it could also be ‘cars’, ‘plastic’, ‘green energy’, ‘democracy’ and so on. (See ‘The Cat That Barked’ in Once Upon an If, page 112, for more on dialogues and dialogue writing.)

Talk Ball

Play the BBC Radio 4 game Just a Minute! (Here called ‘Talk Ball’ because a minute is too long). This is when a player has to speak on a subject, while holding the talk-ball, for a set time period without hesitation, repetition or deviation. I begin with a 10 second time period, then, when someone succeeds, extend the time to 15 seconds, then 20 seconds etc. (See also Robert Fisher’s Games For Thinking.) The class choose up to eight topics, but which of the topics each speaker has to speak about, is chosen randomly.

Related Resources:

Ted Hughes’s poem The Thought Fox

The Philosophy Shop: The Txt Book, Thoth and Thamus in The Philosophy Shop and conduct the same discussion around talking instead of writing. Task Question: If you were Thamus would you allow Thoth to introduce talking to the people?

The If Odyssey: ‘Nobody’s Home (The Cyclops)’ especially the online supplement on the companion website ‘Through a Philosopher’s eye: Cyclops’. In some versions of the Greek myth of the Trojan war, the character of Palamedes meets an ironic, tragic end when, he – the so called inventor or writing – is undone by a written letter. In revenge for Palamedes’s uncovering of Odysseus’s attempt to escape being sent to Troy, Odysseus fakes a letter from Palamedes to Priam. Palamedes is stoned to death by Odysseus.

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